AWACHIE: We’re interested in Africa, too

Annelisa Leinbach_Opinion Africa_1029
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Two weeks ago, Yale hosted the most inspiring event I have been to in a long time. And I almost didn’t hear about it.

“Rethink Africa” was part of the World Fellows Forum. It began with a panel featuring fascinating speakers like a Nigerian actor from HBO’s “The Wire,” the co-founder of a liberal publishing house in Nigeria’s capital, a Sierra Leonean-American DJ and the co-founders of OkayAfrica, a progressive African music blog (how often do you hear phrases like that?). After the panel, everyone mingled over delicious food, drank cocktails at the open bar and danced as the DJ spun contemporary African beats that no one, including the older, serious-looking Fellows, could resist.

I had heard about “Rethink Africa” just a few hours before, from a friend who mentioned an artsy event about Africa happening at the Yale University Art Gallery. We were both surprised at the venue — we hadn’t expected the Yale community to consider an event on Africa worthy of a space as hip as the YUAG.

When we arrived at the YUAG, the hosts asked whether we’d been invited. We were taken aback, but we attended the event despite our discomfort. And we were right to. The panelists spoke about “upending assumptions about the African continent,” a goal that I work toward in my involvement on campus. I am hosting an exhibit this week based on a project I started this summer: photography showcasing nontraditional images of Nigeria. As I listened to the panelists, I heard my goals echoed in stories about their work. I became aware of more possibilities than I had imagined for engaging with, documenting and representing African culture.

I had planned to leave “Rethink Africa” at 5:30 p.m. I ended up getting home at 9 p.m.

“Rethink Africa” was the day after President Peter Salovey’s inauguration. During Salovey’s inaugural address, when he declared that Yale should focus on Africa, I immediately pulled out my phone and tweeted about it. That moment was huge for me. I am Nigerian-American, and coming to Yale marked a time in my life when I became truly interested in my Nigerian heritage.

During my freshman year, I was shocked but excited to find a course in Igbo, my parents’ mother tongue and one of Nigeria’s three most widely spoken languages. I took the class, enjoyed it and left for the summer looking forward to continuing my study of Igbo in the fall. Over the summer, I received an email asking me whether I planned to take a course in Igbo my sophomore year. I responded that I did. The next thing I heard was that the Igbo class had been cancelled. I didn’t receive any explanation. I applied to take Igbo through the Directed Independent Language Study program. DILS rejected my application each time, citing the Selection Committee’s challenge of “limited funding.”

After the inauguration, I shared my excitement about Salovey’s speech with some friends. I was disapointed when they responded by pointing out how random his reference to Africa had seemed. His statement seemed disingenuous, they suggested, perhaps just a political move.

What my friends didn’t understand was that even if Salovey’s stance on Africa was just rhetoric, the fact that he had voiced it at all was huge. His speech was so meaningful for students like me, students who want to explore their relationship with Africa among the richness of Yale’s academic resources and express that relationship through the artistic outlets that Yale offers. Students interested in Africa can now hold Yale accountable to its professed dedication to the continent. It’s the difference between simply accepting that I can’t learn Igbo anymore and pushing administrators to fund African language programs.

I’m still buzzing from “Rethink Africa,” but it left me with uncomfortable questions: Why was the event invite-only? Salovey wants to increase Yale’s engagement with Africa, but who is he hoping to help engage with the continent: an exclusive sample of international faculty or the undergraduate body, the core of Yale College?

President Salovey and the Yale administration need to rethink the way they’re rethinking Yale and Africa. There are students here who want to do exactly what Salovey proposed — do research on Africa, explore Africa through the arts, immerse themselves in African culture through travel. Next month, the Yale African Students Association will host Africa Week, an annual celebration of the continent’s various cultures. Yale should increase its support for this type of undergraduate programming, which places discussions of Africa in unconventional contexts that free us to think about the continent in fresh ways.

I challenge Yale to recognize the achievements and needs of those engaging with Africa within Yale College. And for Pete’s sake, the next time you throw an amazing African party at the YUAG, invite me.

Ifeanyi Awachie is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at ifeanyi.awachie@yale.edu.

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